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The Story of India’s Music Festival Boom

From hosting humble beat shows back in the day to boasting largescale multi-genre festivals today, India has come a long way. Here’s tracing that journey and its biggest trials and triumphs

David Britto Jan 09, 2018

The main stage at Vh1 Supersonic 2017, Pune. Photo: Courtesy of Vh1 Supersonic

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Music lovers in India have probably never had it better. Last year alone treated us to a bewildering range of artists—from guitar god Steve Vai, prog metal giants Dream Theater and pop sensation Justin Bieber to rap icon Macklemore and punk veteran Marky Ramone—all of who also made their debuts here. On the other hand, large-scale festivals became larger, DIY music initiatives got more innovative, brands supported the scene generously and a dozen new music gatherings cropped up across the country. Clubs too made genuine efforts to resurrect a robust and glorious nightlife that the country and its artists deserve.

India’s sunny music climate today has come a long way from the infrastructure starved and ‘Western-music’-dissing scene back in the day, and it has only been possible thanks to the indefatigable spirit of a few pioneering individuals and support from all quarters, be it the authorities, artists or talent agencies. The story of India’s live music scene over the decades is a fascinating journey of triumphs and tribulations. Today it is a fertile field brimming with a host of players staking their claim and competing for innovation. Let’s take a look at the marvelous milestones and the current challenges.

‘Woodstock of India’ and beat shows

A band performing at Sneha Yatra in 1971. Photo: Courtesy of India Sixties and Beyond Music, Facebook

Long before the advent of the modern-day festivals, major Indian cities in the Sixties and Seventies saw a rise in beat shows—rock concerts featuring beat music that was influenced by the reigning British bands of the time such as The Rolling Stones and The Who, among others. Beatlemania had also swept the country much like the rest of the world, and every rock band in India emulated them on stage. In the wake of this rising music counterculture around the globe, which the cult music gathering Woodstock symbolized in 1969, India hosted its first ‘music festival’ ever. Sneha Yatra was held in a small town of Malavli in Maharashtra and it featured rock bands, poetry discussions and other acts. A gathering like this was unheard of and over 4,000 people, most of who identified with the hippie culture, congregated to experience this celebration. Recalls veteran Mumbai-based musician Joe Alvares, who played in the popular rock bands The Savages, Atomic Forest and Sky: “A major shift happened thanks to Woodstock and rock became increasingly popular—it hit the campuses all over India and all of us musicians were very influenced by anti-establishment sentiments.”

The wave of rock&roll had a splash across India in the Sixties and every metro boasted its own share of homegrown rock heroes—The Jets and The Ladybirds (Mumbai) to Great Bears (Kolkata), Human Bondage (Bengaluru), The Fentones, Blood and Thunder (Shillong) and Collegium (New Delhi). They played at colleges, dances and hotels.

Old-timers fondly remember this time as a foundational chapter in the music movement the country would soon witness. This was also a time when many an iconic band toured India and played niche, often low-key, shows. The Police’s historic concert at Mumbai’s Rang Bhawan in 1980; an impromptu jam between Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and local musicians at the popular Mumbai nightclub Slip Disc in 1972; and the Beatles’ frequent visits to the country in the late Sixties are memorable milestones in India’s rock history.

Early club culture and first brand-funded event

A gig in progress at Simla Beat Contest in the Sixties. Photo: Courtesy of India Sixties and Beyond Music, Facebook

One of the earliest brand-sponsored events back in the day was the Simla Beat Contest titled after the cigarette brand Simla and sponsored by Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) and held at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall. The band hunt, held from 1967 till 1972, came to be known for its slick organization and discerning audience which did not shy from hurling rubbish at the performers if they ever played a bum note! The contest also released annual compilation records featuring covers and a one-off original by Indian rock bands.

Counterculture publications of the time such as Junior Statesman (Kolkata) and Dateline Delhi would also host music events that featured rock&roll bands. Although the infrastructure of the time was in shambles—good instruments and proper sound system were common issues—the scene survived on passion. Mind you this was a time when Western music was looked down upon as anti-Indian. The rock loving community was miniscule, patronage was scanty and the political climate least conducive to the growth of such artists. Also it was impossible for artists to make a living playing Western music unless they performed at five-star hotels, which a lot of them did.

The early music scene in India also revolved around a few iconic pubs and clubs that routinely featured bands. Says Alvares, “In Mumbai, the popular ones were Slip Disc, Hell at Hill Top hotel in Worli and Blow Up which was the major club at the Taj Mahal Hotel. We would have housefulls every night.” The Wheels, Sensation, Cellar were rock hubs in New Delhi while Kolkata saw all the action around Trincas, Blue Fox Park Street. The annual Bob Dylan tribute concert that veteran Shillong musician Lou Majaw has been organizing since 1972 is also noteworthy.

Independence Rock, Great Indian Rock sowed the seeds

Crowds at Independence Rock at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan. Photo: Courtesy of India Sixties and Beyond Music, Facebook

Veterans in the scene would remember the now-famous story of how Rang Bhavan in Mumbai rose to become a rock music mecca in the Eighties. The year was 1985 and two of the city’s most famous bands, Rock Machine (now Indus Creed) and Mirage, were slated to perform at St. Xavier’s college. A week before the gig, the bands were informed that their slot was cancelled as the principal didn’t approve of their music. However, an enterprising individual approached the bands and offered them an opportunity to perform at the nearby amphitheater, Rang Bhavan. On the day of the show, the said person ditched the bands for lack of funds for the sound and the artists. However, the musicians, led by the ingenious Farhad Wadia of Mirage, decided to go on with the show and charge people a sum of Rs. 15 at the gate to recover the costs. The event, aptly christened Independence Rock on the spur of the moment, witnessed a turnout in thousands. The annual event went on to become a breeding ground for bands and artists for over two decades, until 2003, when Rang Bhavan was marked as a silent zone by the government and ripped of its venue status.

Bands that performed at I-Rock eventually turned into household names in the indie scene. The likes of Mumbai groups such as electro-rock outfit Pentagram, rockers Zero, New Delhi-based rock bands Parikrama and Them Clones as well as metal bands Demonic Resurrection and Pin Drop Violence all garnered a great following after their stints at the festival. Another milestone in India’s early rock history is the Live Aid concert held in Mumbai’s Brabourne stadium in 1985, which saw 10,000 people.


“There weren’t any venues that supported live music, and that’s why college festivals gave us our break. That’s where we got better as musicians.” – Bruce Lee Mani 


In the Nineties, the popular music publication Rock Street Journal (founded by the late Amit Saigal) started hosting the country’s first ever multi-city rock music festival, The Great Indian Rock. If I-Rock brought bands and fans from across cities on annual pilgrimage to Mumbai, GIR took rock culture across India, travelling to Bengaluru, Kolkata, Shillong, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune. In a way similar to I-Rock, GIR became a platform for artists and their fans to come together as one.

‘The Great Indian Rock Volume 1’ released by ‘Rock Street Journal’ in 1995. Artwork: Courtesy of ‘Rock Street Journal’

How GIR came to be is an interesting story: Back in the mid-Nineties, not many rock bands played their own music, so in an effort to encourage musicians to do that, RSJ called for entries for original tracks. A whopping 3,000 entries came in, out of which 14 were selected and put together in a compilation record called The Great Indian Rock Volume 1. Released in 1995 as a cassette and circulated as part of the magazine, the genre-bending album featured a pan-Indian playlist comprising acts such as Majaw (Shillong), Chakra-View (Mumbai), Orange Street (New Delhi) and many others.

 

Anirban Chakraborty, Executive Director, RSJ and former Orange Street vocalist, remembers how this humble mixtape changed the music scene for the better. “What that did was it suddenly gave us bands a lot of attention we didn’t expect. Now people were asking for our songs instead of covers. Also, we were suddenly thrown into a community with musicians whom we could connect with.”

In a bid to consolidate this community of music-lovers, Saigal turned that compilation into a festival. The first edition, a two-day free event, was held in Kolkata and witnessed a turnout of 5,000 people. Chakraborty remembers how the festival also made it to the newly launched MTV India thanks to the channel’s earliest and most popular VJ, Danny McGill, who came down with his crew and covered the event. “GIR became like the mecca of music, and for anybody who had any aspirations in music GIR was the place to be.” Although these two music properties enjoyed a high aspiration quotient among musicians, all through the Nineties, the real rock bastion continued to be the college festivals. Subir Malik, founder-member/keyboardist and manager one of India’s oldest rock bands Parikrama owes the outfit’s long-standing success to college festivals. “That’s where we played the most. We once played a college festival show that went on till six in the morning. We would also perform covers like “Freebird” and “Stairway To Heaven” where audiences would actually sit and listen throughout those long songs and then head bang when the drums came in after six minutes!”

Concurs Bruce Lee Mani, veteran musician and frontman of Bengaluru rockers Thermal And A Quarter: “College festivals was all we knew. In Bangalore in particular, there weren’t any venues that supported live music, and that’s why college festivals gave us our break. That’s where we got better as musicians. We wrote our own music because we wanted to impress.”

The patronage of a few iconic music venues in the Nineties, such as Mumbai’s Razberry Rhinoceros (favored by metalheads) and Kolkata’s Someplace Else (known for blues and rock), also helped build a tiny but loyal music community.

Meanwhile, Goa—which has traditionally boasted a thriving domestic live music scene largely revolving around jazz and pop cover bands—started brewing its own share of raves and trance parties through the late Eighties and the Nineties. “It was built on the industrial, new beat and high-energy music Germany enjoyed before techno. It was named ‘Goa trance,’” writes music critic and Rolling Stone India contributor Kenneth Lobo in his December 2015 cover story titled ‘EDM Nation.’ He adds, “It created a diaspora of backpackers who reveled in an open-air dance scene. The gigs included plenty of hash, psychedelic drugs and fluorescent cultural artefacts.” This newfound music counterculture would later pave the way for the beach state becoming synonymous with music festivals.

The rise of large-scale music festivals and gig venues

The Manganiyar Seduction performing at Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2012. Photo: Kunal Kakodkar

The turn of the millennium proved to be a momentous time for the entire music scape in India. In 2003, Nikhil Chinapa, DJ Pearl and Hermit Sethi came together and formed Submerge, a firm that would initially host electronic music events and eventually go on to become stakeholder in multiple branches of the dance music ecosystem – management, booking, brand association and consulting. “These events [such as the Zanzibar beach sessions in Goa] were our way to play and listen to music we loved,” says Chinapa, adding, “We booked and programmed artists from India and from across the world.”

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Building an avid dance music community did take its share of groundwork for Submerge in the first few years—from starting an online forum, devising marketing plans to creating templates for the early artist contracts. In 2007, the firm sealed a creative partnership with Mumbai-based media company Percept to launch Sunburn Goa, touted to be Asia’s biggest EDM gathering.

Given its enormous scale and consistently top-notch lineup (all the top DJs in the world have played at the festival) it took no time for Sunburn to build a loyal fan base as well as a high aspiration value around it. The festival continues to attract thousands of revelers each year that comprise a motley mix of diehard dance music fans, curious first-time festival attendees and seasonal travelers that have come to associate the event as part of a holistic ‘Goa experience.’

The Kasauli Rhythm & Blues Festival, 2015. Photo: Jishnu Piku Chakraborty

The success of a big-format, multi-stage event like Sunburn brought an important change in the scene: Brands began to view music festivals as an excellent canvas for experiential marketing. If the Nineties and the early Noughties saw investment from alcohol brands in sponsoring a one-off concert or a niche multi-city tour, now they were ready to spend more to be seen more. In 2009, Harley-Davidson India launched their annual music property, Harley Rock Riders, which catered to a mutually inclusive community of rock music lovers and motorcycling enthusiasts. Mahindra Blues Festival, a niche music outing exclusively curated and produced for the Mahindra Group by Oranjuice Entertainment, has been going from strength to strength since 2011. Other brand-supported music initiatives that mushroomed during this time include Sula’s annual property SulaFest (held in their picturesque vineyards in Nashik), Genesis Foundation’s flagship music event Kasauli Rhythm & Blues Festival, Johnny Walker—The Journey in Mumbai, among others.)

The main stage at SulaFest, Nashik. Photo: Courtesy of SulaFest

However, even though Sunburn enjoys a first-mover advantage in the festival market, the repetition in its programming in the first few years, which saw more or less the same artists representing only a bracket of genres, left serious dance music enthusiasts wanting of a more satiating experience. That gap has led to more festivals entering the arena and wooing all kinds of revelers with inclusive programming and diverse experiences.

Outside of the music festival circuit, the first decade of the millennium was especially blessed for the local club scene as they saw the cropping up of music venues across the country. Hard Rock Café debuted in 2006, followed by Blue Frog, Mumbai in 2007 and a bunch of other gig spaces such as CounterCulture and BFlat Bar (Bengaluru), Turquoise Cottage, Café Morrison, Haze and The Mezz (New Delhi) and Firangi Paani (Mumbai).

Management agencies begin to consolidate the scene

As booking and programming artists for music festivals and gig venues started becoming a more streamlined exercise, it put the pressure on the scene to organize itself.

It was in the wake of Sunburn and the mushrooming of gig venues that India saw a rise in promoters, booking agents and music entrepreneurs setting up firms. The birth of indie label and music agencies Only Much Louder (earlier The Syndicate), ennui. BOMB and Krunk in the 2000s and Unmute, Mixtape, Vital Agency and Gatecrash in the recent years has helped bring in a much needed shape and form to the amorphous indie ‘industry.’

And it has only been possible by building an active community of artists and attendees who are equally invested in the growth of a music circuit that thrives on talent and experiences that are aren’t Bollywood driven. “The scene has grown a lot since I’ve gotten involved, and with specialized agencies coming in the picture, artists can focus on doing what they do best—making music—and not business matters,” says veteran scenester Rishu Singh, who started his indie label/events consultancy ennui.BOMB in 2004, which routinely hosts small-scale gig nights for budding bands (‘Bomb Thursdays’ and ‘Discovery Nights’ in Mumbai) as well as the annual travelling indie music festival New Wave Asia (since 2014). According to him, a welcome change that is pushing the scene in the right direction is the heightened awareness among artists about their own branding and positioning. “There are a lot more bands today and they are committed to promoting themselves today. Also, if you are a part of a niche sound like bass music or death metal, it’s great to have an agency and a label backing you,” he says.

The growing scene has put the onus on artists to up their game as well. Gone were the days of rock bands playing covers; the discerning audience was now hungry for original music. Indus Creed frontman Uday Benegal, “The most significant change that I’ve seen and the best one is that people expect bands to play their own music, which has pretty much become the starting point of all creativity.”

And thanks to rapidly advancing technology, producing an original demo is neither expensive nor rocket science for a rising band. Malik says, “Back in the day, we would have to rent a studio which was very expensive, but today you can make a world class album in your own home.”

Bigger players join festival bandwagon

Festival goers at Bacardi NH7 Weekender Pune, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Bacardi NH7 Weekender

If Sunburn was synonymous with only dance music, the launch of Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2010 in Pune by OML filled the void for a music festival that represented the local indie rock/pop/metal scene. Today, both festivals have grown in scale and scope. While Sunburn’s attempts to become more inclusive by hosting stages for live band acts have met with limited success, OML’s increased creative investment in the comedy as well as dance music scene (not to mention consistently programming Bollywood headlining acts in the past three years) has lent Weekender a shape-shifting character in the festival game.

A significant development in 2013 would also impact the live music scene in India remarkably: After working together on seven editions of Sunburn, Chinapa and Percept split and the former partnered with LIVE Viacom 18 to launch their very own big scale festival in Goa, called Vh1 Supersonic. The emergence of an event like that was a long time coming. Sunburn’s lack of innovation in programming and by now familiar experiences weren’t really cutting it for ardent dance music enthusiasts. On the flip side, the growing dance music scene, with its diverse genres and sub-genres, needed a more inclusive platform that would represent all styles without favoring commercial music alone. Vh1 Supersonic took the cue and plunged.

It was perhaps only natural that a brand like Vh1 took it upon itself to plug this gap. Long before the Internet and streaming services made music consumption simple and easy, music buffs in India only had a handful of avenues to stay clued in on the latest international music hits and trends, one of which has been Vh1. Since the channel launched on Indian cable network in 2005, it has been the doorway to international music, genre no bar. Shows like Hit Factory, Vh1 Top 10 and Good Morning Vh1 were the favored haunts of almost every remote control wielding, music-hungry audience from the mid-2000s.

The first edition of Vh1 Supersonic, held in Goa’s Candolim beach, was a five-day affair and saw a footfall of 25,000 people. The fesival’s trajectory since then is an interesting case study in both creative integrity and brand solutioning. Not only has it attracted bigger crowds (last edition saw a turnout of 50,000+ over three days), Vh1 Supersonic has made it clear that it is neither aping any ‘festival format’ nor positioning itself as an ‘alternative.’ You could tell the difference in almost every aspect: the slick stage designs that stood out for their attention to detail, smooth organization, women-friendly zones, tight security and a more holistic festival vibe.

“Our philosophy over the years has been to create an immersive festival experience for the evolved audiences,” says Saugato Bhowmik, Viacom18

Over the past four years, the festival has also gone beyond dance music to include more genres of music alongside offering a wide range of experiences to the young audience. “This transformation helped us build a larger community of music lovers,” says Saugato Bhowmik, Head, LIVE Viacom18 and Consumer  Products, Viacom18, adding, “Our philosophy over the years has been to create an immersive festival experience for the evolved audiences that is unifying and transformational. Enhanced music experience is our priority and we believe in captivating our audiences through world-class experiences and technology. Our aim remains to become the ultimate calendar event and a getaway moment that international music lovers across genres can look forward to.”

This vision was probably best realized when the Vh1 Supersonic brought down global hip-hop icon Macklemore to headline its fourth edition as it relocated from Goa to Pune. Other big acts included renowned techno/house DJ Eric Prydz, EDM star Zedd. For its upcoming edition to be held between February 9-11th, the festival will bring down the celebrated American rock band Incubus for their debut India show. The announcement sent the rock music-loving community in India into a tizzy last year with sheer excitement. The fifth chapter of the festival will also witness a headlining act by the English indie rock act alt-J, who are known for their immersive performances. EDM biggies Major Lazer, Marshmello, Joseph Capriati and Dillon Francis will also be on the festival’s most inclusive lineup to date, which also features local acts like producers Arjun Vagale, Kohra, Sound Avatar as well as live electronica acts such as Donn Bhatt + Passenger Revelator and dream pop act Parekh & Singh.


“Our philosophy over the years has been to create an immersive festival experience for the evolved audiences.” – Saugato Bhowmik, Viacom18


Festivals turn more inclusive

Supersonic Blues Machine with Billy Gibbons (center) performing at the 2017 edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

The foundation of any festival has to be its top-notch curation and if one were to decode why some festivals hit the sweet spot and others don’t, it all boils down to creative commitments. On the eve of launching Ziro Festival of Music in the unexplored Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh in 2012, organizer Anup Kutty (also the guitarist of New Delhi rock band Menwhopause) shared with Rolling Stone India how the festival was born out of a genuine need gap. “During our tour of the North East and my subsequent trips to some of the states to cover the music scene, I have realized that there exist some brilliant acts as well as a fan base. Thanks to music magazines and the Internet, there are kids who are following the Indian indie scene quite closely. But not many of them get a chance to see their favorite bands perform on stage,” he had said. The festival has since grown by leaps and bounds and received a steady footfall of attendees. He added, “Our team…is filled with people who are passionate about music, the North East and the idea of a confluence of creative energies in a place that seems tailor-made for this.”

A sound vision and foresight have also led to the rise and success of a bunch of multistage festivals in the past five years: Magnetic Fields (Alsisar, Rajasthan), Enchanted Valley Carnival, SulaFest and Kasauli Rhythm & Blues Festival have grown by leaps and bounds; Naariyal Paani has seen increasing footfall in its two-year existence, and Taalbelia (Mandawa Rajasthan) held two successful editions in 2017 itself.

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The consistent scaling up of some of the large-scale music festivals today has also brought about some much-needed inclusivity. Besides shifting venues, festival organizers are also looking at the aspect of making the experience of attending a festival more inclusive rather than just catering to a select bunch of people.

Ziro Festival of Music was launched in 2012. Photo: Pranab Doley

The year 2013 also saw the debut of Enchanted Valley Carnival, a three-day dance music festival in Aamby Valley, organized by the fledgling Mumbai firm Twisted Entertainment. Since its partnership with Universal Music in 2015 EVC has broadbased its lineup to include Bollywood big names and YouTube singing sensations. The sudden shift in its location to the indoor venue NESCO Center in Mumbai last year might have stripped it off its ‘destination festival’ status, but EVC compensated that with a crowd-pulling lineup of returning headlining acts.

For Vh1 Supersonic, the relocation to Pune in 2017 was a challenging phase as it moved out of the beach side hub of parties into a new terrain but it turned the new development to its advantage by focusing on curation and unmatched experiences for revelers. “There was something for every mood at the festival, thus garnering more fans and followers. Pune proved to be the ideal setup for what we had to offer—a festival of great music, fabulous experiences that delighted the involved audience,” explains Bhowmik


The consistent scaling up of some of the large scale music festivals today has also brought about some much-needed inclusivity.


The move to Pune was also a blessing in disguise as it broadened the festival’s scope and scale for brand solutioning, thanks to the addition in audience base. Informs Bhowmik,“We have also seen further increase in brand associations owing to the high decibel engagement opportunity offered by the festival. The festival continues to create value for brand partners through engaging activities, unique content ideas and technology driven initiatives.” At the upcoming edition, revelers can expect mind boggling VR experiences, a special beer garden, interactive dustbins that one can play games with, an engaging gaming zone and more.

This boom in music festivals couldn’t be more reflective of the evolving taste of the average Indian consumer that is discerning, demanding and hungry for new experiences. Says Bhowmik, “Owing to growing number of live events each year in the country, experiential events have evolved as a lifestyle choice for audience. Additionally, their rapid growth over the years has resulted in brands considering these events as a targeted platform to connect with customers, learn about their preferences and build the desired brand resonance.”

Music promoters who have seen the seen grow from its infancy couldn’t agree more. Says Mumbai-based consultant and co-founder of “subculture agency” 4/4 Entertainment Nikhil Udupa, “Festivals are a huge investment, especially in a country where going out for live music consistently isn’t a cultural phenomenon yet. People are buying more into the experience than specific genres of music and to scale up you need to attract a ticket-paying spending crowd. It is but natural that bigger festivals seek to pool in multiple experiences and sounds to attract a varied clientele.”

If LIVE Viacom 18 appears to have cracked the code to a large-scale, multistage inclusive festival with Vh1 Supersonic, it has been possible only through trying out different formats and models over the years, and experimenting with different experiences and music to gauge audience preferences. The defining moment for the company was when they brought legendary American guitarist Slash featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators in 2015 for the second edition of MTV Xtreme held at Jio Garden in Mumbai. Slash’s high-octane performance witnessed a massive turn out and a realization that India is a huge untapped market and sleeping giant in the live music space.

The success of MTV Spiro in Mumbai (a four-day event focusing on music, comedy and film), Emerge Music And Arts Festival in Bengaluru and Mumbai (which brought down alt-J and Rudimental as well as featured a diverse local lineup) and Comedy Central Chuckle Festival have all been part of the journey in building a mammoth event like Vh1 Supersonic. Clearly, it is a product of many years of consistent attempts, successes and setbacks. “It is definitely a huge task to break through the clutter year-on-year,” admits Bhowmik, adding, ‘With the live events and experiential industry growing each year and new brands entering this space, establishing a differentiated consumer experience is crucial to brand love.”

Bollywood playback singer Arijit Singh playing a headlining set at Enchanted Valley Carnival, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Enchanted Valley Carnival

Meanwhile, DIY initiatives gain indie cred

The past two years have seen some of the most inventive experiments in the events/tours circuit. An initiative that changed the way Indian bands think of getting on the road, is the 2Stroke Tour series conceptualized by Uddipan Sarmah from post-rock band Aswekeepsearching and Bengaluru-based investor Ramakrishnan Krishnan. The self funded touring model set up by 2Stroke worked something like this: Sarmah and Krishnan brought on board two bands for each series, approached venues in multiple cities and worked out different deals with each one, sometimes sharing the sum from gate entry and other times securing a landed deal and negotiating artist performance fees with venues.

The whole idea was not so much to make profit but to at least set the balls in motion for a legit touring culture. Musician Siddharth Basrur, who went on the tour with his band Goddess Gagged and Last Remaining Light, says, “I think they got their equation pretty right. If your heart is in the right place and you’re willing to work, I don’t see why anyone else can’t do the same thing.” Even Chennai rockers Skrat, who have previously had tours come their way, feel brands would never see it as viable to put their money behind a band’s tour.

Last February, a gig series Control Alt Delete–organized by Udupa’s 4/4 Entertainment with partner Himanshu Vaswani–put together their massive 10th edition in Mumbai. The DIY festival scaled much higher than it had ever before with 35 artists over two days. The crowd funded-festival raised Rs. 473,519 on their website in addition to the pay-what-you-want model at the gate.

Although the live events market in India is largely sponsorship-driven, many agencies are running pan-India events both with and without the support of brands. Whether it is the recent 11-city Bonjour India tour featuring French bands Lost Train and Colt Silver (organized by Mixtape), Krunk’s annual Bass Camp Festival, the recent Synthesize and Tiny Big Scene gig series by Rock Street Journal Live Events or the numerous club gigs organized by UnMute, there has been a spurt in formats where brands aren’t always integrally involved. “Most agencies in the independent music space are boutique. We work closely with the venues and deliver artists based on their philosophy. Sometimes there are promoters who leave it entirely up to us, then we bring in our experience based on their target audience, budget and scale they would like to achieve,” says UnMute founder Dev Bhatia. On the other hand, agencies are also
benefiting from brands that are willing to fund their small-scale IPs and shows. Boxout. fm’s weekly show Boxout Wednesdays in partnership with Budweiser, the hip-hop gig series FreeFlow, funded by Bira91 are some of the cases in point.

Streaming services playing their part

The contribution of the Internet, especially the growing music streaming services is playing a significant role in helping Indian audiences discover new indie artists. Streaming services like Apple Music  and Saavn are putting the spotlight on Indian independent artist and helping artists distribute music in a democratic space, even as they eliminate piracy and expose audiences to a wide range of content that is easy to consume on mobile phones. Their impact on demand for live music cannot be neglected: apps are building a base of new fans that now want to experience the music that they listen to on their phones at a live event. Last year, Apple Music launched a nationwide campaign in India involving a wide range of artists such as singer-songwriters Prateek Kuhad and Kavya Trehan, rapper Badshah, composer Anirudh Ravichander and electro pop duo Madboy/Mink. The concurrent rise to prominence of these artists in the live events space is also noteworthy. “We are seeding independent music in multiple playlists and giving more options to listeners to come and hear a new song. And even though streaming royalties aren’t much, artists still get to distribute their content everyone.” said Srikant Seshadri, Senior Manager at Saavn, at a panel at BUDx, an electronic music lab held in New Delhi recently.

What the future holds

The future of India’s live music scene depends on a tripartite coalition of artists, promoters and investors—be it brands, curators, streaming services, platforms that provide a robust commercial climate and ensure the frequency, scale and quality of music events. Bhowmik is certain that things are only going to grow upwards in the coming years. He says, “The country has more than 60 percent of its population
under the age of 30, making India the next big destination for prominent international artists.” According to him, owing to growing number of live events each year in the country, experiential events have evolved as a lifestyle choice for audience.

Lobo argues that the country’s rising middle class with an increasing disposable income is more than festival ready. “In a country as populous as India, even a fraction of a fan base amounts to a whale of a ride. On the other, the middle class in India has a 22.6% share of the country’s wealth, with the higher middle-class share about 64% of it,” he wrote.

The scene might still be in its nascent but it has taken some giant leaps in the last five years that can’t be ignored. The most important one has been in the way it is adapting to social and cultural climate and finding ways to organize itself. Of course, not everyone gets it right. Says Aftab Khan, founder of gig series Generation WHY, “We’re at a point where a new festival or record label or agency appears every other day. Not all of them are delivering quality, but there are many that
are delivering and setting themselves apart from all the ‘me toos.’”


The future of India’s live music scene depends on a tripartite coalition of artists, promoters and investors–be it brands, curators or streaming services.


Artists on their part feel that although the integral struggles of being a full-time musician persist in a Bollywood dominated market, it’s the best time to be making your music. Benegal says, “If you want to take what I would consider the more fun part, which is being an indie musician who producers their own music, it is going to be a lot more of a struggle but it will be a hell of a lot fun.”

Curators will need to shoulder a great responsibility too—India has witnessed a momentous rise in the number of artists that are now seeking platforms to take their music live. Chinapa says the key to bringing the best talent that the audience can connect with is to “keep track of ‘chatter’ across various media platforms and music blogs.” He adds, “Booking a fresh, relatively unknown artist is often a process that takes a few years of research and filtering. However now as Vh1 Supersonic expands its genres and styles of music, the curation is a more inclusive process with space for several voices and opinions.”

The main stage at Vh1 Supersonic 2017, Pune. The true test of a successful event is how it raises the bar every year to create newer, more immersive experiences. Photo: Courtesy of Vh1 Supersonic

Putting together a big-scale music festival in India is no mean feat, and it is only natural for each of them to vie for audience’s attention. The true test of a successful event is how it raises the bar every year to create newer, more immersive experiences, even as it stays committed to its core goal of showcasing superlative music. While it has taken some festivals almost a decade to realize all these goals, others have cracked the code in less than five years thanks to their vision. The one music extravaganza that we are watching out for this season is Vh1 Supersonic, for the promise it has consistently shown and also
lived up to each passing year. Apart from merging art and technology to create stateof-
the-art stages, the festival’s obsessive focus on women friendliness and safety is remarkable. Not to mention ensuring it is inclusive on multiple levels—through a genre-bending lineup, free water to all and a variety of games, food & beverages; as well as ensuring differently abled revelers enjoy the festival as much as everybody else. After all, people come to music festivals not just for the music.

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